Forum - Banjo Ben Clark

Newbie question - how to practice efficiently

My only previous experience playing any instrument was about 2 months of guitar when I was 12 years old. Fast forward 34 years and I decided I’m going to learn banjo.

I have had my banjo about a week now, and been practicing between an hour and three hours per day. I practice in chunks of 10 - 20 minutes typically. It’s about all I can do before I just block up completely. So, I do what I can, then take a break.

I’m working on the forward roll lesson (mostly - have done the backwards rolls, and square rolls a little also), and I’m starting to recognize that my timing is horrible. I tend to pause just a tiny bit between measures. Also, my picking sometimes ends up just being the picks sliding off the strings instead of actually plucking the strings.

When either of those things happen (which is a lot) I lose track of where I am, then I flub a note, or play something totally wrong. In other words, in a week of practice, I have not gotten through “Boil Dem Cabbage Down” once without messing something up.

Those were just two things I’ve noticed I do “wrong” a lot. I am frustrated, but not really frustrated.

Loving the learning, but my personality says I need to be learning faster…NOW. Anything else I’ve done I’ve picked up super fast. Learning an instrument is like nothing I’ve ever tried to learn before, so it’s strange not just knowing where to find the answer, and working it out quickly.

Any advice? I don’t even really know what advice I’m looking for, but I’m open to anything.

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You expect a lot. maybe give that first tune more than a week to sink in…Most are lucky to produce one good roll in the first month.

Playing an instrument takes patience, among other things.

Can you get through the first measure with correct timing, etc and without mistakes while not looking at the tab?

how about the first Four measures?

if not, I suggest getting that right before moving on…

Take it in smaller pieces and master each piece first…

Once you’ve mastered two pieces try playing them together (in time and correctly)

Worry about the whole piece when you’re working on the last measure or so…

It’s easy to get impatient, and nearly everyone learns slower than they think they should…lighten up and enjoy the adventure of learning…the rest will come in time…

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I think you nailed it when you said you need to be learning a lot faster. That’s a misnomer that you should try to get rid of ASAP. I would just make sure you’re dividing practice between warmups/technical exercises, songs that are at your ability level, and then either songs you really want to learn and/or songs that are beyond your current level. The times on each May vary and that’s ok. But for instance on the guitar I’ll start with a warmup and then do some scales and chromatic exercises and then maybe some crosspicking exercises. Then I’ll just run through fiddle tunes at speeds that I can play through correctly. I buy into the idea that it’s better to practice something slower, but correctly, rather than fast and sloppy. I’ll usually play through each song 3 times. If there’s a song that I’m particularly interested in on any given day I’ll spend more time on it. When I’m playing a song I might realize that it’s coming along, but there one particular lick that I just can’t get. I’ll spend sometime just on that lick. Over and over and over as slow as it needs to be to get it right. After that I’ll work on songs that I “want” to learn. For instance billy strings has a lot of cool arrangements of old Doc Watson or Stanley Brothers songs that I want to learn. So I’ll spend time working on those. Sometimes just singing to my own rhythm or sometimes putting YouTube on half speed and working on the breaks. Everyday you pick it up you’re making progress. Resist the temptation to compare yourself to others or to think you should be better than you are. I think we all struggle with this.

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This!

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As a Beginner, here’s my expert advice, based on my limited experience.
Whatever it is you are practicing, practice it 1,000 times. Don’t even think about doing it right or fast enough or in time or loud enough until you have done it wrong 1,000 times.
Keep a little score pad if you must.
If, after 1,000 times, you are still frustrated, you can always turn to drink… or go down to the crossroads at midnight when the moon is full, but be prepared to pay a higher price than you bargained for. :fearful:

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Speaking of the the Crosroads. The movie “Cross Roads” starring Ralph Maccio is an absolute must for all musicians.

Features music by Ry Cooder and Steve Vai amongst others.

Just giving a mention, cause I happened to be thinking about that last night.

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Thanks all! Much appreciated!

It’s the newness of playing an instrument that is throwing me off a bit. Not knowing what to expect and the time required.

I feel like I’m getting a tiny bit better everytime I pick it up. So, that’s a good feeling, and probably why I keep picking it back up.

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Hi Mike,

You’ve had some great advice.

The only thing I could maybe add is don’t feel hardhearted with yourself when learning or practicing.

I have days when what I’m trying to teach myself just isn’t happening - but I’ll still practice.

I remember that my instrument always sounds great and never lets me down - as long as tune it.

Even if I’m not getting the exact notes of learning I’d like to achieve - I’ll just take a break or chomp down on few chords and actually listen to sounds I’m making. They’ll ring out clearly and put smile back on my face.

So even if its just listening to a few notes picked cleanly with your banjo ringing like bell - there is always a way to enjoy practicing without worrying even if you are making the progress you expect.

As long as you keep playing you get better and your instrument rewards you for trying!

Good luck - practicing is challenging for everyone!

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You WILL get better as long as you keep picking it up. I believe that small practice sessions like you are doing is much better than one long session. I really wish I had time to pick my instrument up multiple times a day. One thing my piano teacher told me recently that has helped is there is no need to start practicing a song from the beginning each time when you’re trying to learn it. Start at the point where you feel like things are breaking down, get that under your fingers and then play it from the beginning. There’s nothing wrong with starting from the beginning, but you will learn the song faster if you focus on the problem areas first.
Also as others have said here never compare yourself to others, but always track your progress. You will be surprised how much better you will be after a year if you go back and look at old videos you’ve done.

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Hey Mike. I’m still on the beginner track myself. I’ve received lots of great tips by searching the forum for questions and topics just like yours. Here are some of the top tips that have had a lot of impact on my progress…

  • memorize 1 measure at a time
  • use the Tef files (this is a game changer)
  • even the advanced players sometimes start at 40bpm
  • know when your playing vs practicing
  • stay active on the forum and you learn real quick that you’re not alone in your struggle du jour
  • have fun and be thankful for that banjo, Ben, everyone on this forum, and that skill you can do this month that you couldn’t do last month.
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Thanks Brent! I think you hit it on the head. I think I was just looking for a little proof that I wasn’t in this alone.

Been practicing today, just enjoying that I can do something new that I couldn’t do a week ago, and it’s sounding just a little better every day.

Absolutely thankful to Ben for building this community! I was struggling with the decision to even buy a banjo before I found Banjo Ben’s site, lessons, forum. That’s what sealed the deal. I saw everything he has here and realized that I can learn an instrument from home.

Now, I’m just kicking myself for not buying the banjo from the General Store. Had to do all the setup myself, but again, thanks to Ben and Steve Huber for the setup videos, I think I have it pretty much sorted.

Hope y’all are having a great weekend!

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Just remember… Practice DOES NOT make perfect, PERFECT practice makes perfect.

So, as has been said, practice at a speed that you can play correctly, and repeat that. The speed will come. Practicing over and over, incorrectly, only instills those imperfections into your playing. I do, as others have said, eat the elephant 1 bite at a time. I will get a piece I wish to learn, and take the first 2 or 3 measures and play them until I can remember them and play them correctly, not to speed, but correctly. then I will grab another 2 measures and play the first 2 or 3 along with the new 2 until I can play those 4 or 5 measures, so on and so forth until i am playing it all, not to speed, but correctly.
Something else I found out for me, anyway, is play along with the jam tracts as much as possible when you can. For me, I find that if I just use the tab, and learn the song, and can play it fairly well, when I play with someone else, or play with the jam track, my timing is off. I got where I could play Lonesome Road Blues pretty good… i thought, but when I was playing with a friend, I couldn’t get through the first 4 measures without being out of sync, same with the jam tracks. So, use them when able.

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Oh yeah, something else… Keep in mind that learning PACE, is NOT a universal constant! Everyone’s learning pace is different, some really fast, and me, really slow, (I’m still trying to find something or someone to blame that on…). But, as long as you are learning, you are progressing.

As far as practicing… I like to do, as others mention, do a few minutes of warm-up, you know, make sure I’m still in command of my fingers, lol. Then I will spend 15 or 20 minutes, give or take on learning what I’m trying to learn. Then I’ll play something I know how to play, and have a bit of fun. Then maybe take a few minutes break, then back to what I’m trying to learn, and I always finish up with something I know and enjoy. That way I finish on a good note, (pun intended), and my last memory of practice was FUN and not frustrating.

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You have alot of good advice here on the forum. The only thing I would add, being your completely new to banjo, is learn your rolls before getting to deep in a bunch of songs. Learn the alternating thumb roll, forward backward roll, forward roll, backward roll and foggy mountain roll. Practice these with a metronome till you can do them without thinking much about them. To me , these are the basic fundamentals of the banjo. Get these down and you’ll be off to a great start. And to keep from getting bored learn one or two licks you really like. Especially the standard banjo lick. There all on Ben’s site. I know it’s tough but you have to learn to walk before you can run. Good luck to ya.

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Very good advise here.
I recommend you always start at 40bpm and slowly increase the tempo after a few repetitions. Practicng slow helps your brain develop the synapses your body needs to execute the new movements you are teaching yourself. It helps a lot to understand the measures and the notes values (duration) and count or tap your foot while you play.

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I had forgotten about those. Saw them when I started, but couldn’t get them opened so I was just using the tab pdf files. Last night after re-reading your comments, I downloaded a tef viewer. HOLY BUCKETS! Those are helpful! Especially for tempo.

Thanks again everyone for all the help! It is much appreciated. Yesterday, I managed to get through the entire forward roll song without a mistake (once, but it proved I can do it).

Here’s something odd I noticed about myself: if I go too slow, I make as many mistakes as going too fast. There’s a tempo just a little faster than too slow where I do well. Even stranger, it takes me awhile every session to find it. Odd.

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Hi Brent and Mike,

Totally agree about the TEF files

I’d looked at them, couldn’t open them and just used the PDFs so far.

After reading your comments I spent a little time getting my head round the TEF files and downloaded the player.

WOW…

I’m used to just having you count and figure out what the riffs are meant to sound like - I’ve always hated doing that, so this is amazing!

Worked out how to speed them up and slow them down. I have tendency to rush licks too quickly and miss the importance on giving space to each part; or to miss the importance of letting some of the notes ring out clearly and evenly. So these TEF files are brilliant.

I’ve not always had the luxury of being able to listen to exactly what I need to learn - or have been stuck with a back up track that’s going too fast - Though that did teach me to keep up and to be patient, as the lick, tune or melody would come around again.

Being able to pace the TABs tempo to somewhere you are comfortable with and hear exactly what’s going on it brilliant.

So impressed with Ben’s work and how all of his lessons have been immaculately presented. With other material I’ve used in the past I sometimes end up wondering - is that right? Being able to play the TABs , to hear exactly what your learning and to play along is fantastic.

I shall try make the most of them and look into buying the full version of the player.

Thanks for highlighting a whole area that I not been using so far!

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I have noticed, too, that if I go too slow, I tend to make more mistakes, regardless of how many times I play it, I make mistakes. My thoughts are that if I know the song, playing it faster doesn’t give me time to think about each individual finger movement, rather my brain just puts them there. Almost like I think of the song in little chunks instead of individual notes. Also, with my timing, I have found that when I am “in the grove” with a song, I hear the notes I am playing, but I don’t really hear them. I hear more of the picks thumping the string with each thump equally spaced from note to note. I guess I’m just weird that way.

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That’s what I was thinking! I’ve noticed that going too slow, my mind tends to wander. I’ll notice the feel of the drum head, how one pick is a little tigher than the other, the fly that just buzzed my face, a million other things that have nothing to do with practice. If I go too fast, I overplay my ability. There is a speed in the middle that keeps me focused and isn’t too fast.

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Definately agree with both of you.

I think I need to hear whole piece to understand the context for what I’m playing.

I do sometimes stop completely and focus on difficult parts, but only if I’m not getting them at all or I’m starting to develop a bad habbit to skip over the correct fingering and pick management.

It is so convenient to pace the tempo of the TEF files exactly where you want. I’ve been happy to dive in at 120bpm for most of the exercises. Though I’ve previously downloaded a few of Ben’s PDF TABs , so I probably know the material I’m learning reasonably well.

I’ve also been able to speed them up rediculously - not to play along - but to just listen to what they sound like. Which can make me listen in an entirely new way and appreciate how to recognize each part and what I should be looking to achieve.

The TEF files are great. When compared to the AABB backup tracks I’ve used in the past - where I can find myself yawning through some parts, while panicking at a difficult section that is about to come up - Ben’s lessons seem very focused and manageable. He packs a lot to learn into a good sized lesson.

Anyway great to hear about your experiences when practicing

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